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'With all the doom and gloom, it lifted the whole of West Kerry. He is one of us and a Gold Cup winner'

22-year-old Jack Kennedy’s metoric rise in racing and recovery from injuries has inspired his fanbase at home in West Kerry.

Updated Apr 25th 2021, 10:15 AM

ON SATURDAY 20 March, Jack Kennedy was back in action at Thurles racecourse.

It was less than 24 hours since the biggest win of his career, a landmark moment in becoming the youngest jockey in modern times to claim the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

In racing, it is one of the quirks of the trade to operate under the intense glare of the sporting spotlight and then resume riding in an off-Broadway setting the following day.

As a contrast, consider that it is unlikely any of the Gods of football in West Kerry, where Kennedy hails from, were ever asked to turn out for a club game on the Monday night after lifting Sam Maguire. 

That’s the nature of it when it is your profession, the upshot is there is scant time for basking in the glow of significant achievement.

On that afternoon in Thurles, Kennedy had two runners. A winner on Commander of Fleet, a faller on Felix Desjy. A snapshot of the contrasts the exist in the sport.

There was a moment of recognition though. Even with the track devoid of spectators, the mix of jockeys, trainers and stewards present did their best to whip up an atmosphere by saluting the week’s feats with a guard of honour for two stars.

Rachael Blackmore predictably commanded much of the focus after her groundbreaking exploits but even if he was overshadowed to an extent, Kennedy was still entitled to share in the acclaim.

For a 21-year-old who had been stricken with the harsh blows of injury, it had been a momentous festival. Four winners, including the most prestigious steeplechase on Minella Indo when he held off Blackmore on board A Plus Tard in a thrilling finish.

Source: Racing TV/YouTube

And back home in Dingle, for those that have watched him reach this status, his success helped pierce the recent clouds with a bright ray of sunshine.

“With all the doom and gloom, it lifted the whole of West Kerry,” says Colm Sayers, chairman of the Dingle Races Committee.

“He is one of us and a Gold Cup winner. We are all just so proud of him. With the place being locked down in the pandemic, nobody was talking about anything else.

When Jack won the Gold Cup, we had stuff to talk about.

“He’s just such a nice lad. His family were always lovely. It couldn’t happen to a nicer type of a fella.

“Especially as well after his bad luck.”

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*****

Before delving into those setbacks, it’s worth visiting his background.

“The family were saying one year from Santa he wanted a whip and a pair of riding boots and he’d no pony at the time,” recalls Sayers.

“In Dingle you’d be looking at football, we’re not Kildare, Tipperary or Meath surrounded by stud farms and trainer’s yards.

“But it was just in him and it was pony racing that got Jack going.”

In his autobiography ‘True Colours’, Barry Geraghty recounts tales from a star-studded career as a jockey.

He does note one absentee though from his glittering CV – the Dingle Derby.

“It was brilliant,” recalls Geraghty now of those August trips to Kerry.

“I’ve great memories of it. It was just a great school, you gain so much experience in your early teens, doing what you’re hoping you’re going to be doing. Then when you get to the racecourse you’re two steps ahead of the fella who hasn’t had that experience.

“It’s a massive meeting. When that is what you’re doing, that’s your All-Ireland final, that’s your Cheltenham.

“So it would have been the same for Jack. He grew up so close to Dingle, it was like Fairyhouse was for me. I’d say there was a big buzz around their home every year at the start of August.”

barry-geraghty-onboard-squouateur-clears-the-last-fence-with-jack-kennedy-onboard-archive Barry Geraghty and Jack Kennedy in opposition in 2015. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“Jack’s Dad and his brothers would have been going to Dingle Races for years,” says Sayers.

“Jack as a young fella started riding ponies around when he was four years old, he started pony racing properly when he was nine in Dingle.

“People thought Jack was an overnight sensation when he took out his jockey’s licence but from the age of nine to 15, he and his brothers and his parents would have driven all over the country to pony racing meetings every summer.

“That’s what got him going. He was pony racing for three or four seasons and he was national champion three times and he rode 221 winners. So we’ve known him and seen him for a long time.”

If he was earmarked for greatness, his family’s passion for the sport was another aid. His parents Billy and Liz mapped out summers around the interests of their four sons. Jack is lighting up the game now, his older brother Paddy is also a jockey, riding regularly for Jessica Harrington, and another brother Mikey is a trainer based in West Cork. 

Mikey did line out in defence for Dingle in the Kerry senior championship arena. But given he was known as ‘Mikey Horses’ to differentiate from a player of the same name on the club panel, it hinted where his preferred sporting loyalties lay.

Earlier this month at the Fairyhouse Easter Festival, Mikey trained a maiden hurdle winner in Salt Wind with Paddy on board for the victory. David is the last member of the clan, cheering on from America where he resides.

And even in an area with a deep-rooted fanaticism for Gaelic football, Kennedy always had an outlet to nourish his own sporting interest.

“If you ask any of the jockeys what’s their thoughts on pony racing, they talk about it in such a way that you know it was a massive part of their upbringing,” outlines Sayers.

“There’s three different associations – the North, the Midlands and the South. They all race in the summer in farmer fields, on small tracks and on beaches. Then every year they all meet in Dingle in August.

“It’s known as the Cheltenham of the pony racing circuit, pretty much all of the races would be Grade Ones. Dingle has been doing this festival since the late ’70s but there’s been racing in the field we convert since 1896. So there’s a history there.”

The Dingle Races has proved a breeding ground for other trailblazers.

“Years ago pony racing would have been seen as like the poor man’s horse racing, it was called flapping. But what’s after happening in the last number of years, it’s producing the jockeys in Ireland.

“Paul Townend would have won the Dingle Derby, Barry Geraghty was Champion Jockey there. Pat Smullen rode in Dingle, Oisin Murphy came through as well.

“In Dingle it’s the same as races, they’ve to go into the weighing room, deal with stewards, deal with starters. A microphone shoved in front of their faces if they win, doing interviews. All this experience from pony racing is invaluable.

“We see these jockeys coming through, then they’re gone after a few years and we’d be watching them, following their careers. You’d be proud of them all but Jack is our own lad and his family are local.”

In 2014 it was Kennedy who won the Dingle Derby on Coola Boula. He started out with trainer Tommy Stack, who famously piloted Red Rum for the 1977 Grand National triumph, in Tipperary before moving on to work with Gordon Elliott.

His first ride on the racecourse was at Clonmel in May 2015, his first winner just two weeks later in Cork for trainer Pat Flynn. Strides were made rapidly in his teenage years, he partnered with Elliott’s Outlander to the take the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown in Christmas 2016 for a Grade 1 breakthrough.

He was catapulted into wider public recognition on 14 March 2017, the first day of Cheltenham that year and in the very first race. The pressing concern beforehand was whether his mount Labaik would start after refusing to race in two of his previous three outings. Kennedy got him galloping away and he was first up the hill, a 25-1 winner of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. A 17-year-old in dreamland.

Source: Racing Videos/YouTube

That experience was utilised and he flourished twelve months later with four winners at Cheltenham, matching the week’s leading rider Davy Russell for winners but losing out on placed horses.

Geraghty has always been a fan.

“Very much so, he’s just so natural. A lovely pair of hands. Horses generally settle for him, horses jump for him. He’s a lovely laidback attitude but he’s very committed. The big doesn’t faze him, he’s the same person.”

And yet it has not all been smooth sailing, a career pockmarked by injury setbacks.

The right leg was first to go with a fibula fracture after a fall at Downpatrick in September 2016. Kennedy suffered a recurrence of that injury the following month in Thurles.

Then he broke his left leg in May 2017 at Punchestown, sidelined for three months after a femur fracture.

And finally came the most severe blow in February 2020, another break to his right leg at Leopardstown which ruled him out for seven months.

Just to pour salt into the wounds that day, he had been seemingly on top of the world when winning the Irish Gold Cup with Delta Work before being brought crashing down when unseated from Dallas Des Pictons at the first fence in the very next race.

A couple of shoulder problems as well and his powers of recovery have been truly tested.

“He’s had rotten luck,” admits Sayers.

“You’d be worried about him now checking race results if you see Jack Kennedy and f (faller) or u (unseated) is written after him. I think last year would have been very hard, his leg going again, it must have been a sickener. For a lad that keeps getting knocked, he keeps coming back.”

“That’s definitely the environment as a jockey but you need to be resilient to come back,” oulines Geraghty.

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“Yeah he’s had a rough time of it but has dealt well with it. He’s bounced back each time, never showed any ill-effects of those injuries and he’s been a long time on the sideline, especially, the last one.

“I know I was out for six months with my leg. He was out for longer. He’s due a clear run and you’d hope he’s going to get it.”   

His capacity for success was illustrated at Cheltenham this year when he got a clear run and took the Mares Hurdle with Black Tears, the National Challenge Cup with Galvin, the Kim Muir after an amazing ride on Mount Ida and then the Gold Cup to cap it all off.

cheltenham-festival-2021-day-one-cheltenham-racecourse Jack Kennedy after Black Tears wins at Cheltenham. Source: PA

All that while recovering from a hard disappointment as the hot favourite Envoi Allen fell at the fourth of the Marsh Novices’ Chase.

“You saw in the Gold Cup, he was in tears after how with much it meant,” says Geraghty.

“Obviously Envoi Allen’s fall would have been a big dent to him so to bounce back with the Gold Cup was amazing. He’d a lot of emotions that week for a 21-year-old.”

cheltenham-festival-2021-day-three-cheltenham-racecourse A long walk for Jack Kennedy after Envoi Allen's fall. Source: PA

For Sayers watching on from home, the week’s racing provided different reminders of the collection of talents that elevates Kennedy.

“He’s a very calm way about him. If you’re that way around a horse or any animal, they’ll relax as opposed to being highly strung or wound up.

“People have said he’s great for switching horses off and he can turn them on then for the final couple of furlongs, you saw that with Galvin at Cheltenham.

“The thing I found about Mount Ida’s race, I’ve seen horses coming off the bridle and Jack working on them early in the race. He just keeps at them and gives them every chance.

“Even in pony racing at a young age, he was able to ride a race in different ways, to instruction. We always noticed, he’d be very wise beyond his years.

“I just think that any horse that gets Jack to be booked on him, it’s definitely a plus.” 

*****

The jumps racing season concludes this week at Punchestown, the contest between Blackmore and Paul Townend in the jockey title race set to be a dominant storyline.

cheltenham-festival-2021-day-four-cheltenham-racecourse Jack Kennedy celebrates Minella Indo's Cheltenham win. Source: PA

Kennedy combines with Minella Indo for a different Gold Cup bid on Wednesday. He celebrated his 22nd birthday last Thursday, marking the day with a winner on Ted Walsh’s favourite Pictures of Home at Kilbeggan.

His career stretches out in front of him, bristling with potential.

“He’s riding big winners since he was a teenager and that’s what set him apart” says Geraghty.

“He had no problem then either. I remember Paul Townend being the same as a teenager, riding big winners. A lot of performance depends on keeping a cool head. The two lads have definitely proved that.

“Rachael as well, especially what she has done this year is amazing. It’s great for everyone and good for the sport which needed a positive on the back of what’s happening in recent times.”

Back home in Dingle they will follow this festival closely and hope their own marquee meeting at Ballintaggart on the approach into the town, can get the green light later this summer.

Uncertainty is a constant in these turbulent times.

“Our problem and something we’re trying to work on but it’s going to take a long time, is that we’re not supported,” says Sayers.

“We don’t get money from HRI or Sport Ireland. We’re self sufficient to raise money and get volunteers. In order to run the Dingle Races this year, which we’d absolutely love to do, we’d need to get funding from somewhere.

“We have been talking to the HRI about helping us out alright because it’s very hard for me to go to businesses around Dingle and look for race sponsorship. It’s all raised by local companies and businesses, it’d be a hard ask after the tough year they’ve had.

“If pony racing isn’t supported, it will come to a stage where there’ll not be Irish jockeys. Pony racing needs to survive to help keep producing Irish jockeys.”

The event fell by the wayside in 2020, they’ll hope to get up and going for 2021. It would be a timely and wonderful occasion to hail Kennedy, their Gold Cup winning hero.

“That’s what we’d absolutely love to do. I would love to be able to do it in the races if they were in Dingle this year but that depends on a load of factors. Whatever about the races though, as soon as restrictions are lifted, we’ll do seomthing.

“Next time Jack comes home, there’ll definitely be bonfires blazing for him and we’ll do something because everyone in Dingle would love to shake his hand and congratulate him.”

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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